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William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Updated on March 6, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Painting Inspired by the Williams Poem

See note below about origin of painting, The Red Wheelbarrow
See note below about origin of painting, The Red Wheelbarrow | Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow"

The beauty and simplicity of this poem have kept the verse a mainstay in the American canon since the early 1960s. Mid-twentieth century American letters featured the ultra imagist poet, William Carlos Williams, asserting his creed that there are no "ideas" outside the realm of "things."

To Williams, imagery was the heart and soul of poetry. His widely anthologized and deeply studied piece offers up a sturdy example of what images can do. In the hands of this master poet, those images did their job marvelously.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Williams reads his poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Commentary

"No ideas but in things" was William Carlos Williams' motto. Imagist poet Williams held in low regard the highly allusive poetry of many of his contemporaries.

Pediatrician Inventing His Own Style

Williams was a pediatrician, which means he probably did not have time to study literature formally, so it follows that he would profess a penchant for a poetry that is composed of the immediately observable. And that is not uncommon for poets to dislike the prevailing styles for whatever reason and then invent and promote their own.

While caring for a sick child at the child’s home, Williams wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow" in less than five minutes while observing a scene out of the window. So why is this a poem? Why is it studied so widely? Why has so much been written about it? The main reason is that it exists, and that Williams did, in fact, make a name for himself in poetry, and he influenced the next generation of poets.

Why Study This Poem?

But while there seems to be little there at first glance, if the reader concentrates, he will find an interesting and true assertion, although it is doubtful that Williams actually thought of this concept. If we string these lines together to make a sentence—"So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens"—we can understand the poverty of this sentence as it tries to be a poem.

However, the claim that “so much depends” upon this wheelbarrow is quite accurate. On a farm, a wheelbarrow is used for a number of important farm chores—moving tools from the barn to the house and back, transporting feed to the cows and chickens, carrying seeds for planting and then the produce to the house at harvest. My dad even used his wheelbarrow for mixing cement when he built our chimney and two supporting rocks wall in front of our house.

So the statement is true: on a farm, a lot does depend on being able to cart around various items. And, of course, because of being able to move these items easily, one’s livelihood as a farmer is facilitated.

Aesthetics

In addition to making a true and profound statement, the little verse has a pleasing beauty. Notice that each “stanza” is shaped like a wheelbarrow. The colors stand out because of their contrast with one another: the white chickens contrast with the red of the wheelbarrow.

The use of the term “glazed” gives depth to the rain on the wheelbarrow. It seems just the right word in the right place. What other term would be more appropriate? Splashed, soaked, drenched, covered? No. “Glazed” coats the wheelbarrow with the rain just perfectly, just as glazed sugar coats those yummy tasting glazed doughnuts.

Note about the Painting: The Red Wheelbarrow by Emily Perkins

Ms Perkins, an art student in my English composition class (Spring Semester 1995) at Ball State University, painted the lovely little scene depicting the meaning of this poem: she painted the red wheelbarrow and the chickens, of course, but what demonstrated that she understood the meaning of the poem was that in the wheelbarrow she placed a mound of soil with a house setting on top and a corn stalk growing out of the soil. That this poem could elicit such a painting demonstrates effectiveness of the poet's choices, as well as the excellent perceptiveness of the student painter.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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